I remember my mother sitting at the table of our old farmhouse with my recruiter signing the forms to make it possible for me to enlist at 17 years old, and get into the delayed entry program. I remember walking across the stage at my high school graduation with an impressive 45 absences and a 1.6 GPA. I am sure it took some impressive clerical work by the front office to make that accomplishment of mine fit the requirements to even print that lie of a diploma. They must have known that my education meant nothing to me, because in my mind I was already in the Army. What good was algebra going to do me in Iraq anyways? Six days later, I left for Fort Benning’s school for troubled boys. I wanted to be a Soldier. I wanted more to be an infantryman. I wanted to deploy as soon as I could, because I didn’t think the war was going to last that long (pause for effect) and I wanted to do my part. I can only laugh now as I look back on myself.
Now, here I am at 29 years old with partial disability, good memories, and a way of life that isn’t going to cut it in the outside world. Like so many other veterans in my situation, I have forced myself to swallow the acrid taste of the uncertainty of leaving service. I look at my military experience and have a hard time drawing connections to the civilian world. What am I going to do with myself when I get out? Sure, things like sniper, team leader, squad leader, and drill sergeant sound cool, but there isn’t a whole lot of need for those skills outside of the Army. Management or law enforcement right? I felt like I was an actor being casted into a role I have already played. I worry about what it’s going to be like so far away from the support system of my comrades that I rely so heavily on. I can’t help but wonder if I can find the same satisfaction with my professional life that I did knowing that in one way or another I was making a difference fighting for my country.
What it boils down to is that I allowed myself to make “soldier” my whole identity. I was given a clear path for success by the Army, and I followed it. It was in keeping with the “keep it simple stupid” (KISS) mentality. There was a task and a purpose, and I dutifully executed it. The problem is that once out of the Army, it’s up to you to create your own task and purpose. For a lot of people, it’s get a job so you can feed your family. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into fulfillment and satisfaction. Especially because for all its faults, military service has some intangible benefits you simply cannot find in the outside world.
I imagine it will be much more difficult to find meaningful relationships outside of the military. There is no way to replicate how close you can get with the men and women you go to war with. The bond you create when you are forced to trust a small group of people with your life, and knowing your part in the safeguarding of theirs, doesn’t exist anywhere else. All you have to do is flip on the news to see how little civilians trust each other as they fight about any issue they can find a morsel of offense in. We have always had a support group of these friends who, at a drop if a hat, would be at your house to help you no matter what the situation. It is not until you finally get out on your own that you realize how much of an impact those people have on your life.
Trying to find common ground with the civilian population is hard. In the military you are assigned to a unit, and you develop that close bond out of the reality that you are going to war together. When you’re out, even if you do make a pal chatting around the water cooler, it still won’t be the same. The flip side of that coin is how veterans are viewed. Post-traumatic stress has seemed to run rampant with this generation of soldiers, and with that comes its own stigma for civilians. When most civilians hear ‘PTSD,’ they think of the shootings at Fort Hood and unstable individuals who will commit violence upon unsuspecting innocents. They read these stories of the horrific things people who have PTSD do and become wary veterans every move. It’s a lack of education that drives these unfair overgeneralizations, but it drives a wedge in between the two groups none the less.
Another problem is finding purpose in your life. Sure, you have family and other loved ones, but nothing you do can compare to preparing and engaging in combat. The gravity of being the best or losing your life. Everyone joins the military for their own reasons. I know for me, it was so that the assholes that wanted to kill Americans could take a shot at me rather than the innocent people back at home. They can do it on their home turf and not on the streets of America. I took pride in knowing that I was shouldering that responsibility. So when I look at possible careers, I do not see many that could stack up with that. If I got into sales, for example, I would never be able to sell enough of whatever I was peddling to gain the same level of job satisfaction that I got in the Army. It would be like living the same day over and over with nothing to show at the end of each day. I have watched friends bounce from job to job because of this reality. Searching for something that can’t be found. All the while losing confidence in themselves. Losing hope that they belong in this foreign world.
I often write about veterans issues, but I think we need to start looking at the reintegration back into society as strongly as the effects of post-traumatic stress. I think some of the symptoms that are attributed to PTSD are actually a result of having a hard time adjusting back into a society that is so different from the military. How easy is it to feel isolated when you lose that support system that has always just been a phone call away? How easy is it to slip into depression if you don’t find fulfillment in what you do day in and day out? Combine those things with residual combat stress and you have a volatile mix that could play a part in the outrageous suicide rates among veterans.
It is not all doom and gloom on the horizon, however. After talking with a growing number of like-minded veterans, there are some ways we can combat these issues. We often feel victimized by the cards we are dealt. It could be the VA, and all if its flaws, or walking around the streets of our hometown like the lepers we think the world sees us as. We can continue to allow ourselves to fall into this cycle of victimization or we can step up and fix it ourselves.
The key is simple. Band together as a community of veterans and go out and make a difference by doing the only thing that’s going to fill the voids left behind after leaving the military. Service to the country with others who know what that really means. We can choose not to lose that comradery that we had while we were active duty by keeping that brotherhood alive even though we have made the transition from soldier to civilian.
There are plenty of veteran organizations out there to connect veterans to other veterans. If we can do so in great numbers, we can work together within our communities trying to make this country a better place. Something we swore an oath to do in the protection of it. We can start to show the people of this country that our time serving this country wasn’t just while we wore the uniform. We can prove to everyone that we are not damaged from our experience but stronger and willing to bring what we have to offer home to make a real difference here as well as abroad. Then we can begin to bridge the gap between the civilian cultures and our own.
Things like volunteering to be a mentor or coaching a youth sports team can have incredible results. Not only can we start to fill void the purpose and brotherhood, we can also show the rest of the country that we are still committed to making it a better place.
We don’t have to reinvent ourselves to fit the mold of the rest of society. We don’t have to put on a mask of someone else’s design. If we did that it would actually be a waste. The perspective we have to offer from our experience is powerful. What we have to do is stick to what we know. The selfless service that enriched our lives in the military. Use our experience and drive to serve in whatever capacity we still can. I can think of no better group of people more equipped for this task. Who else is so used to doing more with less than the veteran community?